Journalists are cynical. It is an essential skill for those who spend their careers questioning and fact finding. But ask journalists about their own industry, and cynicism turns into a doomsday sermon equivalent to that of a religious fanatic.
Recent reports that News Limited will join Fairfax in culling journalism jobs was met with hand wringing and more dire declarations of the cataclysm of journalism.
These announcements are a vindication for the doomsayers, who spend their time predicting the end of journalism, and in particular “quality” journalism, due to the advent of online news services. The argument goes that as more people move online, less and less will receive their news from other media, (newspapers in particular, but also television and radio), meaning a loss in jobs and inevitably a decline in the “quality” journalism we enjoy today.
The news media, like a lot of industries in the world right now, are going through an upheaval. This is the result of not only the global financial crisis, but also the fundamental changes wrought by the digital revolution. While this does certainly mean a change in the industry, as we know it - it is not necessarily a negative change.
By its very nature, the Internet offers infinite possibilities for the proliferation of news content. Its infrastructure is cheaper than traditional media (think of the bottom line impacts of online content versus the printing press) thereby allowing new independent players to enter a market that has traditionally been a saturation of media owners. Crikey, On Line Opinion and Business Spectator are just a few examples of this.
But let’s also look at the statistics. Last year was the year Australians embraced online news. Nielsen/Net Ratings figures show that in 2007 more than 1.5 million Australian news junkies were visiting at least one news site everyday. Newspaper editors would wet themselves for similar figures
More recent statistics tell a similar story; while newspaper readership has been in decline for decades, online news consumption is steadily increasing. The average number of monthly unique browsers (or readers) for heraldsun.com.au and dailytelegraph.com.au nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year compared with the same time last year, with increases of 146 per cent and 156 per cent respectively. Over the same period smh.com.au, news.ninemsn.com.au and theage.com.au grew by 66 per cent, 21 per cent and 56 per cent respectively.
Media executives are of course privy to the same figures. In the last couple of years we have seen the introduction of new media ventures. We have seen the development of Fairfax’s thebrisbanetimes.com.au in April 2007, followed by its Western Australian venture watoday.com.au in October 2007 and the youth oriented news service thevine.com.au in April this year. If we put this into perspective, there hasn’t been a launch of a new metropolitan daily newspaper (aside from the free commuter newspapers) in two decades. The last was the Business Daily, started in July 1987, only to close six weeks later.
Overall, newspaper readership has been in decline for decades. The mass-market ad-driven newspaper is the result of an historical anomaly that was driven by technological, literacy and commercial factors of the past 100 or so years. These same factors are now driving the medium in another direction.
While this may seem like a grim picture for newspapers, it is an exciting prospect for the journalism students who are constantly told that there are no jobs. In fact, you could argue that the industry is in the best possible place to cope with a flood of new and eager journalists who have a diverse range of skills.
Despite these statistics however, I for one don’t believe the web will “kill off” newspapers. Just remember that everyone said television would spell the end of radio. It of course didn’t, but what eventuated was a shift in the content model of radio.
Paper as a “technology” has many advantages over the online medium - don’t worry I’m not going to paint a picture of reading while sipping a latte. We have a cultural association with paper; it works well as a snapshot, is portable, and provides a high resolution that cannot be replicated on the web. It is the logical home of material that cannot be produced or consumed in a hurry.
My guess is that yes, the “traditional press” as it exists will end. What we will see instead is a proliferation of high-quality weekly glossies that provide analysis and other long-form journalistic endeavours.
So although the current media landscape is no longer viable that does not mean that the “golden age of journalism” is over. I don’t think we need to be throwing our hands in the air and crying the demise of journalism - just because it is undergoing great change. Change may be difficult, but it can result in benefits. As a great advocate of online journalism, I think we need to be looking at what this medium can offer and not focus on the nostalgia for an era that has reached its used by date. Journalists need to be shelving their infamous cynicism, and proactively looking to the future.